Sunday, September 30, 2007

A pair of shorts

Two short news stories this week show that you're never too old to get married, or, come to that, divorced.

The first story, which doesn't bear too much thinking about, involves twenty-four year old Reinaldo Waveqche, who married eighty-two year old Adelfa Volpes in Santa Fe, Argentina. He said that he "admired his new wife's zest for life". Let's hope he has many years with her to enjoy it.

On the other side of the coin, you've got to feel sorry for Romanian pensioner Sandu B, who is divorcing his wife, who is 20 years his junior, after her cat ate his two pet parrots. I'm sure that there's a Monty Python joke in there somewhere, but I can't think of it...

(On the subject of pets and divorce I highly recommend this wonderful post by Judith Middleton this week.)

Friday, September 28, 2007

Does Miles Cooper have a point?

Primary school caretaker Miles Cooper was this week found guilty of carrying out a letter bomb campaign in which eight people were injured. He said he had been "angry at authorities", in particular the amount of power given to the government, and "concerned about the direction my country was heading in". Whilst I do not for one moment condone his actions, does he have a point?

We may shortly find ourselves living in a country where:
  • We all have to carry identity cards;

  • Our DNA is kept on a central database;

  • Many of our personal details will be on databases available to the authorities;

  • We will not be able to set foot in the street without being filmed;

  • Our right to freedom of speech may be curtailed; and

  • Our basic civil liberties may be restricted in the name of anti-terrorism.
Perhaps we should all be concerned at the direction our country is heading.

Superheroes or Villains?

I have been looking at the web site of the American fathers' rights group Fathers-4-Justice® US (F4J™ US). The group (which is quite separate from the UK organisation of the same name) says that it was established in March 2005 in Minnesota and that it "has since steam-rolled across the country as a 100% volunteer army of Superhero mothers, fathers, grandparents and others who have answered the call to defend the millions of American families who suffer at the hands of domestic judges, attorneys, social workers and other profiteers engaged in child custody matters." (I am not sure how much American social workers are paid, but if it is anything like the amount social workers receive in this country then the word 'profiteers' is somewhat inappropriate - I could say the same for legal aid lawyers.) The F4J US mission statement says that its members are "dedicated to fighting for truth, justice and the American way (sorry, couldn't resist) equality in America’s family law system", and its grievances seem to be remarkably similar to those of fathers' rights groups in this country.

This set me thinking about fathers' rights groups generally:

  • Are they just a group of angry people who would be dissatisfied with any system, unless it gave them exactly what they wanted?

  • Is there a fundamental problem shared by the English, US and, probably, other systems?

  • Is there really a better way, or is there simply no answer - i.e. in any system there will be parents who will think that they have been unfairly treated?
[I am open to suggestions for further options.]

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Not so brief family law blog roundup

Spurred on by this post by Nick Holmes, I thought I'd get around to doing something I've been meaning to do for a while and review what's been happening in the world of family law blogs.

Jacqui Gilliatt at bloody relations has written an excellent series of posts on that most misunderstood concept, parental responsibility (logically filed under the label 'parental responsibility'), and an amusing but highly realistic post setting out '10 Ways to Irritate the Other Parent & Provoke a Court Case' - yes, Jacqui, I've come across all of those!

Lynne Bastow at DivorceSolicitor has changed her template but continues to give the sort of advice I could not possibly give upon dealing with the emotional aspects of relationship breakdown, together with specific legal advice, such as this post regarding the frustrations of dealing with the CSA.

Judith Middleton blogs in her own uniquely interesting way, her posts often related to her personal experiences, such as spotting her 'Ex' in town recently. I particularly liked this post about an elderly client who misheard the name 'Resolution' - I told you we should have kept the old name 'Solicitors Family Law Association'!

Pink Tape has been having trouble with commenters who have an axe to grind, especially lawyer-bashers, hijacking her blog. In response, she has enabled comment moderation and suggests that the culprits write their own blogs.

Diane Benussi, speculating whether there is any such thing as a 'good' divorce, comments upon how many people choose their divorce lawyer by reference only to location or price. This has always surprised me - very few prospective clients ask anything about your experience, qualifications or approach. In particular, as Diane says, choosing a bad lawyer who stirs up confrontation is only going to make things worse, not better.

Lastly, Family Law Matters has been a little quiet of late (it's a pain when work gets in the way of blogging), but has found time to give some sensible advice upon that perennial problem - naming the 'other party'. I, too, often have to spend time dissuading clients who are eager for revenge from 'naming and shaming' the Co-Respondent.

Monday, September 24, 2007

No Fault Divorce Reprised

When I opened Resolution's monthly periodical The Review this morning, the usual wad of advertising leaflets from book publishers and seminar providers fell out, but there was also a No Fault Divorce Questionnaire from Resolution itself. This asks for the views of members upon no fault divorce, and particularly what should be required to show that the marriage had irretrievably broken down. This is boiled down to the following:

1. Is mutual consent sufficient, and if so, should this be only after a period of separation?

2. With no consent, is the filing of a 'statement of marital breakdown' by one party, followed by a period of time, sufficient and if so, what should the period be?

3. If 2 above, should there be any period of separation?

The purpose of the questionnaire is so that Resolution can formulate its policy, should reforming the ground for divorce find its way back on to the political agenda. I sincerely hope it does, as our current fault-based system is an unnecessary source of confrontation and is surely inappropriate in today's society.

[Incidentally, my answers were: 1. Yes to the first part, no to the second. 2. Yes, six months. 3. No.]

Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Ego and the Idiot

The ego received a boost yesterday when I checked my recent keyword activity. Someone had asked Google: "who's the best children's law solicitor in UK". Naturally enough, this led the searcher to Family Lore. Modesty, however, prevents me from accepting the accolade - that, and the knowledge that anyone who calls them self the best children's law solicitor in the country would be an idiot.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Inappropriate

The Judicial Communications Office has issued the following statement in response to the Fathers4Justice 'Judgebuster' Campaign:

There is no justification or public interest served in publishing the home addresses or other private details of judges. It can serve no purpose other than to intrude into the privacy of the judge, and encourage harassment of the judge and his/her family in their family home.

In the case of their court work family judges have to make difficult decisions based on the individual circumstances of a case. By their very nature, these cases are emotional and feelings often run high on the part of a dissatisfied party. However, all parties have the opportunity to express their opinion to the judge in person prior to a decision being made, and the right to seek to appeal decisions that they regard as unfair.

That being so it is inappropriate and irresponsible to publish this form of private information.

I'm sorry, but I don't agree with disclosing judges' addresses, no matter what the grievance. I once had an experience of something similar when a litigant in person I was dealing with wrote to me at my home address in an obvious "I know where you live" intimidation exercise, and it's not very pleasant. We are all entitled to our private lives, irrespective of what kind of work we do.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Friends Like These

I'll pose this as a simple question: should Sir Mark Potter, President of the Family Division, have given a character reference yesterday for Bruce Hyman, a barrister who has been found guilty of perverting the course of justice in connection with a case involving family proceedings?

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

How many bad pennies?

In my post about the Bruce Hyman case I suggested that most family lawyers uphold the highest standards of the profession and work hard to reduce animosity by adopting a constructive non-confrontational approach, especially in matters involving children. Whilst I still believe that this is the case, I wonder if the number of 'bad pennies' is rather higher than my experience suggests. I have today received information about another incident of appalling behaviour by a family lawyer (unfortunately I am not able to give details), adding to a significant number of reports I've come across of similar experiences, particularly by litigants acting in person.

As I say, my own view is based upon my personal knowledge, gathered over more than twenty years of doing this work. Certainly, there have been times when other family lawyers have behaved in an unnecessarily aggressive or confrontational fashion (for example when they have become overly involved in their client's case), and occasionally some have been less than professional, but generally most I have come across have adopted the approach that I have mentioned above, especially those who are also members of Resolution or one of the family law panels. However, it is extremely rare that I have felt that the conduct of a fellow lawyer has fallen seriously below the standards that are expected (or should be expected) of us.

Now I am not so sure. Is my experience typical? Would it be the same if I were a litigant in person? It is made quite clear in Resolution's Guide to Good Practice and elsewhere that a lawyer's approach to a litigant in person should be no different, but do some lawyers seek to take advantage, for example by bullying the other party? Just how many bad pennies are there?

The public perception of lawyers in general and family lawyers in particular is that we don't care, we are biased and we will stop at nothing to achieve our client's ends, irrespective of the effect upon others involved in or affected by the litigation, including children. As I indicated in my previous post, I believe that most family lawyers are striving hard to turn this reputation around, but if there are too many bad pennies then we are simply wasting our time.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Madness

I see the Legal Services Commission has published the list of firms who have been awarded legal aid training contracts for 2007. There are some 71 firms on the list, but the LSC says that this year the scheme "will award a further 100 grants nationally". The scheme offers "a package of over £30,000 per grant", which by my calculation comes to over £3 million pounds.

This makes me laugh. For years the LSC and its predecessors have effectively cut back on legal aid rates of pay, with the inevitable result that fewer and fewer people want to do the work, and now they are spending large sums of money to entice (bribe?) people into legal aid work! Even if the scheme is entirely successful and results in 100 new legal aid lawyers a year, this is hardly going to offset the stampede of lawyers giving up legal aid.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Courting and controversy

I've added a couple of blawgs to my 'blogroll'. Firstly, one that I've been meaning to add for a long time (I actually thought I had added it), and that will already be familiar to most blawgers: What About Clients?, is by US lawyer Dan Hull and contains "News and ideas on clients, business and law around the globe".

The other blawg is prisonlawinsideout, by 'jailhouselawyer', a former prisoner who "was transformed from a law breaker into a law-maker". 'Prolific' and 'controversial' are the best words I can come up with to describe this blog, but it's refreshing to come across someone who's not afraid to speak their mind. This recent post will give you a flavour.

Simpsonized

A few weeks ago I came across this site, where you can create a 'Simpsons' version of yourself (or anyone else, for that matter) from a photograph. Mildly amusing, if you really have nothing else to do. Here's what I came up with:


Sunday Shorts

A scene from M*A*S*H goes something like this: Corporal Klinger asks Colonel Potter for some advice during a break in operating on patients. Potter tells him he hasn't much time, as he has to get back to the operating table. Klinger tells Potter that the advice he needs is about the workings of the female mind. "That's OK", says Potter, "I can tell you everything I know about that subject in less than a minute". This just about sums up my own knowledge on the subject of the female mind, so I'll make no comment on this story, which suggests that the menopause may be responsible for the breakdown of many long marriages where the children have grown up.

We all know that we divorce lawyers are not the most popular people. So it comes as something of a shock that we have come top of something. The Observer reports today that the two most written-about solicitors, as collated by publisher Sweet and Maxwell, are both divorce lawyers: Anthony Julius, who acts for Heather Mills and Fiona Shackleton, who acts for Sir Paul McCartney. OK, so not much of a surprise there after all.

On a more serious note, Daisy Goodwin in The Sunday Times today speculates that children of failed marriages, mindful of their childhood experiences, may fight harder to keep their own marriages together, for the sake of their children. She says: "Even though divorce is not the legal blame-fest that it was when my parents split up, no one – children, parents, grandparents – comes out of it unscathed. There is always a loss. That loss can reverberate well into adult life."

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Indefensible

I see that the Archbishop of Canterbury has said that when Prince Charles becomes King, he should not become 'defender of all faiths', rather than just Christianity. Prince Charles had indicated in an interview in 1994 that he would like to become "Defender of Faith" rather than "Defender of the Faith".

For now, I'll not get into the debate about whether a modern democracy should have a monarchy, but why on earth in the twenty-first century should its Head of State have the title "Defender of [insert your religious delusion(s) here]"? Why not just "Defender of Reason" (I realise that Prince Charles may not be best qualified for this), or "Defender of the People"? I appreciate that Prince Charles was trying to be all-inclusive in a multi-cultural society, but surely the best way to ensure that no group is offended or felt excluded is not to mention religion at all?

Friday, September 14, 2007

Does it know something we don't?

I recently installed anti-spam software on my PC at work, to deal with the voluminous amount of spam email that arrives in my Inbox. Now, when I receive a 'Professional Update' email from the Law Society the anti-spam software gives me a warning: "Possible fraud link detected!"

Why am I amused by this?

There's no place like home

Last night I watched Who Do You Think You Are? on BBC1, featuring John Hurt's efforts to trace his family history. The programme started with Hurt, who was born in England to English parents, telling us how, when he first went to Ireland, he felt like he was 'coming home'. Unfortunately for Hurt, his investigations did not prove any Irish ancestry, and by the end of the programme he was left clearly disappointed.

I have never believed in this phenomenon of 'coming home to the place of my ancestors' - it is no more than wishful thinking. There is no record of 'place' stored in your genes. What Hurt experienced when he first visited Ireland was the beauty of the place and it's people, coupled with an erroneous belief that he shared ancestry with them.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Putting Children First

The Centre for Separated Families today published a survey suggesting that more than 20 million people – a third of the UK population – live with the direct effects of divorce or separation, either because their parents had separated or because they had separated from a partner with whom they had had children. The survey also found that only a third of those affected by separation have received professional advice, mostly from solicitors (how many more if legal aid was more widely available?).

The survey coincides with the publication of "Putting Children First: A Handbook for Separated Parents", whose authors both work at the Centre for Separated Families. The book "offers child focused strategies for building a co-operative parenting relationship after family separation, focussing on the most difficult issues". It has already received five star reviews on Amazon, and looks like a good recommendation for clients with children, especially if both parents are prepared to read it.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Sunday Snacks

As so often at this time of year, it's been a quiet period for serious family law news, so here are a few somewhat less serious tidbits to fill the stomachs of those waiting for the next main course:

It's good to see that Fathers 4 Justice founder Matt O'Connor has not mellowed with age, as demonstrated by this interview with The Guardian. O'Connor describes our family courts as "Kafkaesque", and says that we have a "North Korean style of family justice", a view that I'm not sure will find favour with those who work in the system.

Celebrity divorces do still make the news. Thierry Henry "could face the biggest ever divorce payout for a footballer", according to the Telegraph. How many people will be sympathetic towards someone who reportedly receives £130,000 per week for kicking a football around?

Still on the subject of those with money, divorce lawyers in America are reportedly advising clients who have suffered as a result of the recent stock market crash to cut their losses by divorcing their wives. Clearly, pecunia vincit amor.

Finally, spare a thought for Kevin Quinn, who was caught as he tried to get married for the third time – without divorcing either his first or his second wife. Quinn claimed to have been in a drunken state for so many years that he had not got around to divorcing his first wife. Now he has a suspended prison sentence to go with his hangover.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Media magnet

... and I've just noticed that the Internet Newsletter for Lawyers is not the only place where Family Lore has made the media this week. In their 'Web week' column The Lawyer, referring to this post, is clearly sympathetic to the plight of us divorce lawyers, following the news that the divorce rate is the lowest for 22 years...

We not so few

At a time when, as reported by Nearly Legal, a number of blawgs have disappeared from the radar, there is no shortage of family law blogs. To celebrate this, the latest issue of the Internet Newsletter for Lawyers has an article including short pieces by six of us, including yours truly. The other contributors are Lynne Bastow (DivorceSolicitor), Jacqui Gilliatt (Bloody Relations), Jo Spain (Family Law Matters), Judith Middleton (Judith's Divorce Blog) and Diane Benussi (Benussi Blog). Unfortunately, Pink Tape surfaced too late to be included.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Essential Advice

Thanks to Boing Boing for providing a link to that most essential piece of advice for divorcing husbands: How to protect your Meccano in a divorce. Remember: "After being divorced, you could find yourself living in a cardboard box with some of the Meccano as your half share of the assets, while your spouse retains everything else".

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Burying the past

"Give a dead marriage its proper, final resting place. The Wedding Ring Coffin is the perfect gift for yourself or a loved one for bringing closure after a divorce." So says Wedding Ring Coffin, a site that sells small wooden coffins complete with brass plaques, for you to put your wedding ring in after divorce. I shall be recommending them to all of my divorcing clients.

And in case you're worried what the postman will think when he delivers it, just remember that: "Each coffin is tastefully packaged in a quality gift box".

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The Long Road

I've just noticed that it's fifty years to the day that Sir John Wolfenden, the Vice-Chancellor of my alma mater, Reading University, published his famous report recommending that homosexual behaviour between consenting adults should no longer be a criminal offence. These words from the report should not be forgotten: "It is not ... the function of the law to intervene in the private life of citizens, or to seek to enforce any particular pattern of behaviour". Despite support from the BMA, the Howard League, the National Association of Probation Officers and even the Archbishop of Canterbury, the government rejected the proposal and it was another ten years before the law permitted sexual relations between adults over the age of twenty-one.

That, of course, was not the end of the story. It was not until 2000 that the age of consent for gay men was brought into line with that for heterosexuals, and not until 2004 that the Civil Partnership Act was passed, allowing same-sex couples to enter into civil partnerships, which are similar to, but still not the same as, marriage.

Day 247, week 36: Form Filling

Sometimes it seems as if 50% of the job of a family law solicitor comprises filling in forms. It could be worse I suppose - that figure would be increased to 90% if you are unfortunate enough to do legal aid work.

The form for today is the infamous 'Form E Financial Statement', a 34-plus page tome that all parties to financial proceedings on divorce are required to complete, setting out full details of their financial circumstances. The form is also often used where no application has been made to the court, as a means of disclosure for the purpose of negotiating an agreed settlement.

The main problem with the form is that it is a 'one size fits all' document, to be used by millionaires and those on state benefits alike (although there has been some discussion of introducing a simplified form for straightforward cases). As a result, many sections in the form are irrelevant to parties of modest means and it can be difficult to explain more complex situations within the constraints of the form. Personally, I preferred the old system of preparing an 'affidavit of means', which could be tailored to the particular circumstances of each case. Unfortunately, that system was all too often abused by parties (and, unforgivably, their solicitors), who used the affidavit as a vehicle to raise all sorts of derogatory and irrelevant issues (I remember some 'affidavits of means' that contained nothing else - not even the basic details of that party's means). Partly as a result of such abuse, the Form E was introduced, and now we are stuck with it.

Most of the form is purely factual: valuations of assets, details of income etc. Only the last two sections of the form really involve much law, where you have to deal with such issues as each party's financial contributions to the marriage, issues of conduct (which are very rarely relevant but still often raised by parties with an axe to grind), other relevant circumstances and, most importantly, what order is being sought.

Once the form is complete you then have to check and collate the 'essential documents' that have to be attached. These can be quite voluminous and include such things as valuations, bank statements for the last 12 months, payslips, business accounts etc.

In many ways things have improved with the use of Form E, but I sometimes wonder whether the proliferation of paperwork is really necessary. Who wants to read page after page of a form filled with sections stating "not applicable", and how many bank statements actually contain anything that has a significant bearing upon the outcome of the case? One thing is for certain: the pipe-dream of the 'paperless office' is as far away as ever, if not further away.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Australia leads - again

No, this post isn't anything to do with cricket. Yesterday I received a press release from Australian 'equal parenting group' Fathers4Equality, commenting upon recent family law changes in Australia, specifically the Family Law Amendment (Shared Parental Responsibility) Act 2006, which commenced on the 1st July 2006. The Act is part of the Australian Government’s "bold new reform agenda in family law", and introduced a presumption of 'equal shared parental responsibility' which, if not rebutted (for example where a parent has engaged in child abuse or family violence), means that the court "must consider making an order that a child spend equal time with each parent where it is reasonably practicable and in the best interests of the child". If such an order is not appropriate, then the court "must consider substantial and significant time (which includes day to day routine – not just weekends or holidays)".

So what has been the effect of the changes, more than one year on? Fathers4Equality state that "the jury is still out on whether the courts, who have been historically resistant to any form of shared parenting initiatives, will interpret these laws as they were intended over time, but the whole family law reform package put out by the Australian government has underscored a decisiveness for change, that at face value, seems quite genuine, at least for now." The press release gives no details of cases decided under the new system, but Fathers4Equality President Ash Patil says that "with some fathers having already applied for and been granted 5 or 6 days residence out of every 14, we have some hope that things are improving".

Clearly, this is a substantial change in approach to resolving arrangements for children that will no doubt be watched with interest from this side of the world. Will it once again be a case of 'Australia leads, England follows on'?

Sunday, September 02, 2007

"I will... subject to a potential partner check"

If I find myself out of work as a result of the falling divorce rate, perhaps I could make some money with this idea from America. Cheat Peeps describes itself as "an online infidelity/affair snoop and background service that provides people with the information necessary to determine if their partner or potential partner is telling the truth and to provide evidence on a spouse if a divorce is imminent". Services range from "infidelity snooping", from as little as $19.95 for checking an unlisted phone number, up to $1296.95 for the preparation of an "evidence file deluxe", for the purpose of divorce proceedings. You can even have a "potential partner check", so that you can "get the background on a soon-to-be spouse or partner to make sure you know what you are getting into".

Hmmm...